Photo of a bullldozer
Photo by Jason Jarrach on Unsplash

Teaching Your Child to Avoid Getting Emotionally “Bulldozed” by Others

“That long [Canadian] frontier from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, guarded only by neighborly respect and honorable obligations, is an example to every country and a pattern for the future of the world.”

Winston Churchill

Have you ever wished for something all your life, but you figured it would never happen, and then suddenly your dream came true? That’s what took place for my dad, Gary Smalley. He had a crazy wish to drive a big, yellow, powerful bulldozer and build his own road. After my parents purchased a small farm, he rented the biggest bulldozer he could find and spent an entire week “leveling” dirt mounds, large rows of rocks—basically, anything that appeared to need it. A few days later, one of his new neighbors knocked on the door.

“Hi, neighbor,” he said with a smile.

Without any pleasantries, the man responded, “We’ve got a problem.”

“We do?” dad asked.

“Yeah. One of your workman bulldozed my rock fence and some of my cattle are missing.”

“Ohhh,” dad managed to say while he tried to remember if he’d leveled any rock fences. Knowing full well that he most likely ran over the man’s fence, dad attempted to relieve the tension through the use of humor, “Yeah, it’s so hard to find good help today, isn’t it?”

My dad’s little dream having come true ended up costing him thousands of dollars to replace his neighbor’s fence and replace the man’s lost cattle.

In a similar sense, I tend to be a human bulldozer, and no one is more affected by this weakness than my children. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve bulldozed over their emotional fence. And also, too often, I’ve allowed others to break through my “fence.”

Part of what I’ve been learning is that everyone has an imaginary fence around us—like a property line—that defines where a person starts and ends. It defines who and what we are, what we are comfortable with, what our needs are, what is appropriate, what is inappropriate, and what causes us to feel safe. Part of a person’s unhappiness can relate back to their inability to establish a clear boundary of where his or her identity ends and another person’s begins. Our feelings let us know what type of fences we have. If we are being loved, we have pleasant feelings. If we are not experiencing love, we may have unpleasant feelings. We often control our feelings based on the fences we set for ourselves. In other words, other people cannot control our feelings. We cannot say, “You keep me upset!” No, we control our choices. We can set limits on what others say to us and what we allow ourselves to do with the information they give us.

A healthy fence can reduce the harm to you, but also allow you to reach out to others in loving and caring ways. Fences are needed for our own happiness and well being. But some people build fences around themselves that create unhappiness for them and can attempt to rob us of our happiness. So we need to understand them and rebuild any fences that could lead us to unhappiness.

We must teach our children that if they want to experience personal happiness, they must take 100% control of their lives, including how they respond to others. This idea can be summed up in two very significant observations, both of which contribute to our level of happiness in life. We call them the two sides of a healthy gate. One observation concerns others, the second concerns you. Both of them must be kept in mind to experience personal happiness.

  • You will always have people who want to get inside “your fence” without your permission.
  • We are responsible to build our own fence and lovingly tell people where our property line begins and ends, based on our own needs and feelings.

Helping your child to clearly define who they are is essential. It can make or break their love for life and the satisfaction they receive from relationships built on respect and honor. Learning to respect the boundaries can literally change your child’s lives.

Teaching Kids to Set Boundaries Through modeling or doing the following:

  1. Use words like “No, I don’t want to do that; No I won’t participate in that; Yes, I want to do that; I will; I like that; I don’t like that.”
  2. Set limits on others and limit your own exposure to people who are behaving poorly
  3. Teach that truth is an important boundary
  4. Teach that feelings are our responsibility and must own them and see them as our problem so we can begin to find an answer to whatever issue they are pointing to.
  5. Foster biblical values and convictions
  6. Teach that we have to take responsibility for our choices
  7. Allow people to reap consequences that they sow
  8. Be responsible to exercise your gifts and talents, and be productive
  9. Hold people accountable for “bulldozing” you
Greg Smalley, PsyD
Website | + posts

Dr. Smalley previously served as the director of Marriage Ministries for The Center for Healthy Relationships. He is the author or co-author of twelve books concerning marriages and families, and currently serves as the executive director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family.

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